Oh gosh. This is tough. I was given The Ruth Valley Missing, by Amber West in a special Valentine’s Day “blind date” book giveaway. I had a few exchanges with Amber in the process of being sent the book and I like her. She sounds like a really nice woman. That’s what makes this so hard. It’s doubly hard because I am a firm believer in author etiquette that says that you shouldn’t say bad things about your fellow Indie authors’ work. That being said and as gently as possible….
The Ruth Valley Missing is not ready for publication. It needs some serious developmental editing. Developmental editing is not the same thing as copyediting. Developmental editing is when a paid professional reads a novel looking for continuity errors, characterization flaws, plot holes, motivations that don’t ring true, research errors, and much, much more. A good developmental editor is the safety net you need to stop yourself from printing something that might make you cringe later.
Because I want to be as gentle as possible, I’m only going to talk about The Ruth Valley Missing in the context of the necessity of research when writing a novel.
From a research point of view, I’m probably the last person Amber would have wanted to read this book. I’m from Philadelphia (which has a large Catholic population) and went to mass and RCIA when I was in grad school at Villanova, I lived in the deep South for almost 3 years, I work in the insurance industry, I’ve both been in therapy and have friends that are psychologists and psychiatrists, my mom was a quilter, and my Granddad’s hobby was photography. Why does it matter that I have touched all these things? Because there is always going to be someone who knows more about any given skill, career, hobby, or demographic than you do who reads your book, and if you haven’t done you’re research, they’re going to catch you.
The town of Ruth Valley is located somewhere in rural North Carolina. It is apparently populated by every Southern stereotype you could imagine. Not the flattering ones. Stereotypes don’t make the best characters and tend to offend the people who live in the area you are trying to make assumptions about. That’s a problem.
A bigger problem is that the entire plot centers around the fact that the town of Ruth Valley is deeply Catholic. I’m sorry, but while the people in rural North Carolina are undoubtedly religious, demographically they are much, much more likely to be Protestant. In fact, a quick check on Wikipedia confirmed my suspicion that rural North Carolina is overwhelmingly Southern Baptist. Now, I’m not saying you couldn’t have a town that was mysteriously all Catholic. In fact, that would be a fascinating oddity that would help the plot. But you would have to discuss how unheard of it would be right up front. Otherwise it registers as a serious credibility error that makes the plot far-fetched.
Another bit of the plot involves the heroine, Jameson (cool name, by the way) finding an old camera bag at a rummage sale and sending the film in to be developed. I found my Granddad’s old camera bag once, complete with film, and attempted to have it sent in to be developed. I was quickly told that A) film left in a camera for more than a few months deteriorates to the point where it can’t be developed, and B) the chemicals used in film have changed in recent years so that old film can’t just be taken to your local photo place and developed. In fact, there is only one facility in the US that can process old film (if it even exists anymore) and it takes a long time and is extraordinarily expensive to do. That’s what I was told, but the facts about film might be something different. It’s another credibility problem that could be solved with a little research.
And then there’s insurance. Without going into too much spoilery detail, insurance companies are tight-wads with extreme measures in place to combat fraud. In order for someone to take a policy out on someone’s life, you have to prove that you have insurable interest, meaning a connection to the insured that would mean their death would cause a genuine loss to you. Insurance also has a contestability period. There are rules for beneficiaries too. I’m sure there would have been a way to work all of these provisions into the plot of the story … if a little research into insurance had been done.
And then the little things: Confession doesn’t work like that. There’s no way anyone would sell a handmade quilt for $60 at a rummage sale. A psychiatrist is someone with a medical degree who can prescribe medication and a psychologist is a counselor. People only give themselves stitches on TV and in movies. And pain just doesn’t work like that.
All of these problems could have been avoided by doing a little research. Granted, in some cases it would mean changing the course of the story, but it would be worth it. I think the whole Catholic thing would have worked better if the novel were set in rural New England, for example. And that would bring its own brand of local charm with it. But research the area first.
I wish that was it, but the research problems were only the tip of the iceberg. The story has potential, but it just isn’t ready yet.
There is one other thing I have to say. And I’m really sorry for this, Amber, but this is where I stop being nice. The Ruth Valley Missing has 28 5-star reviews and 5 4-star reviews on Amazon. In no way does the book in its current form warrant any of those reviews. Click on the reviewers and you can see that for a large number of them, this is the only book that person has ever reviewed. Clearly these are “friends and family” reviews. That’s just wrong. On so many levels.
Friends and family reviews and “sock puppet” reviews (reviews written by the author using fake accounts) are what give self-publishing a bad name. They piss me off. They will piss off other people who buy your book. It might seem like a good idea to get all of your buddies to give you 5-star reviews, but in the end it will back-fire. It’s false advertising. It’s unethical. If you’ve published something that wasn’t ready for publication, no amount of hollow reviews from your friends will make it better. You’re far, far better off having no reviews at all than hollow reviews. These kind of reviews will seriously damage your reputation as an author. Don’t succumb to the temptation to collect them.
Next up on my reading list, I think I need a palate cleanser. I have a novella by Eloisa James, a NYT Bestselling Romance novelist, that I think I’ll read. I have mixed feelings about Eloisa James’s style, so we’ll see what happens.